Thursday 31 May 2012

Further thoughts on the Monaco Grand Prix

Monaco - Though shalt not pass
The Monaco Grand Prix was certainly close: that the top six cars finished but 6.1 seconds apart showed this. But as far as many fans are concerned it was not exciting.

That's the evidence anyway of a quick trawl of web comments after the race. Here are few examples in response to Andrew Benson's review of the race for the BBC: 'Another race like this one will see us all walk away from F1', 'What on earth was "exciting" about this Grand Prix? It was dreadful. Almost no overtaking'; 'That has to be the worst race I have seen in many, many years.'

Follow-my-leader at Monaco isn't new
Credit: Steve Gregory / CC
Well, I don't know if this will be much comfort to those who hold such opinions but 'twas ever thus at Monaco. Or at least, it has been the way of it since the swimming pool complex was introduced to the track in 1973, thus condemning most subsequent races to be a case of follow-my-leader.

Indeed, if you want a graphic example of this you only have to look back to a Monaco Grand Prix that has gone into folklore. In 1992 Nigel Mansell, having made a pitstop and being on fresh tyres, was likely several seconds a lap quicker that Ayrton Senna's leading McLaren, but despite many laps dodging and weaving he couldn't find a way past, nor even a credible opportunity at having a stab. The Monaco races in 1979, 2002 and 2006, to name but three examples, were won in similar style to Mark Webber last Sunday, namely taking the lead at the start and controlling things from there, even as apparently faster cars built up behind.

Sunday 27 May 2012

Monaco GP Race Report: Webber does it old school

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Nothing ever stands still in F1, as is appropriate in the world's most intense and fast-moving sport. But within it all some things never change. Winning around Monaco has long been about getting the lead at the first corner at controlling things from there, most probably ever since 1929. And that's exactly what Mark Webber did today.

Mark Webber took as classic-style win in Monaco
Credit: Morio / CC
It was a classic Monaco drive from Webber, in what was a classic Monaco race (classic, that is, as in time-honoured). Today we witnessed a tight, tense battle, wherein the top six cars ran in close company right to the end, but simultaneously on-track overtaking was an extreme scarcity. But Webber looked to have the whole thing under control throughout, even when the much-anticipated rain started to spot late on (again, a bit of a Monaco tradition) and lap times dropped by several seconds. But he never put a wheel out of line and only ever went as fast as he needed to. It all added up to him taking the final flag first.

I won't make any secret of the fact that it pleases me when Mark Webber wins an F1 race. His is a genuine, honourable and honest personality, and one who is a great ambassador for the sport (as they say in the UK: you could imagine having a pint with him). And this is especially welcome in an age wherein, with respect, many F1 drivers have been mollycoddled by a team or manufacturer from an early age, and their relative lack of 'life experience' sometimes shows. Webber by contrast has had to fight for everything he's ever had, and that shows too. And, most importantly, he's bloody quick.

Saturday 26 May 2012

Monaco Qualifying: The wounded animal is the most dangerous

So, the talent still lingers after all. Once upon a time, a 'Michael Schuamcher tops qualifying times' headline would have caused no more than a shoulder shrug. But today the great man doing so was genuinely remarkable. Almost no one saw it coming.

The surprise was particularly acute given that so many failed to hold back after Schumi exited the last round in Spain by driving into the back of Bruno Senna, writing him off as finished and touting many potential replacements. Well today, not for the first time, Schumi bounced back and then some, ensuring widespread consumption of humble pie. Throughout his F1 career he's one who has often personified that the wounded animal is the most dangerous, and all the old skills were on show as he hustled his W03 around the tight Monaco confines to set the fastest time. Perhaps there are a few who should have known better.

Michael Schumacher showed all of his old skills
by topping the qualifying times
Credit: Morio / CC
Further, while his clash with Senna looked a misjudgement, the declaring of it representing the death throes of Schumi's career was surely excessive given that, this incident aside, he has driven well this year. One can point at his relative lack of points, but this is mostly attributable to bad luck with unreliability (see Australia, China and Bahrain qualifying), being hit by errant opponents (see Malaysia) and grid penalties (see Bahrain). It seems to be an unfortunate maxim of many expressing an opinion, not just in F1 but in most walks of life, that you're only as good as your last game. Today showed the folly of such an outlook.

Monaco Preview: Spin of the roulette wheel

It's a cliche, but no less true for that: there's nothing quite like Monaco.

It's one of the brands (alongside only Ferrari most probably) that it's very hard to imagine F1 without, that makes F1 what it is. It is to F1 what the Indianapolis 500 (also taking place this weekend, helpfully) is to Indycars. To illustrate, after Champ Cars split from the Indianapolis 500 in 1996 and took most of the teams and drivers with it, for all the virtues of the championship it never managed to overcome it not having the blue riband event, and the series eventually folded and was merged back into the Indy series. It gives some sort of insight into what Monaco is to F1.

There's nothing quite like Monaco
Credit: BertS / CC
So why is this? It's a good question. If you were to refer to the Monaco Grand Prix as an anachronism you wouldn't be entirely wide of the mark. The modern F1 car has long since outgrown the place, in-race overtaking at the track is as rare as hen's teeth and the circuit features forbidding close-by barriers that would be laughed out of town if proposed at a more modern facility. As Clive James once dryly noted: 'Monaco makes a nice change from Grand Prix racing'.

But, for all of this, Monaco has an intangible quality; what you would call 'magic'. Just watching racing cars around Monaco is an enchanting experience, even with the rarity of on-track passing. The backdrop is one of the very most iconic and beautiful of any sporting event, let alone in motorsport. Wherever you turn in Monaco when the racing is on you invariably see something eye-catching.

Sunday 20 May 2012

Further thoughts on the Spanish Grand Prix

Maldonado's win is a shock for the ages
Someone, somewhere would have become very rich as a result of Pastor Maldonado's shock win in last weekend's Spanish Grand Prix. I'm told you could have got odds of 250/1 on a Maldonado win at the start of the weekend. To place that into some sort of context, that's roughly the same odds as for Everton winning next year's Premiership, or for FC Basel winning next year's Champions League.

Pastor Maldonado's win was possibly the biggest surprise ever
Credit: Morio / CC
To further place the surprise of Maldonado's win into context, it's genuinely hard to cite a historical example of an F1 race whose victor was less expected, particularly if you include only those won pretty much on pace (as Maldonado's was) rather than owing to inclement weather or other freak circumstances. Examples that spring to mind, such as Stirling Moss's win in Monaco 1961, Dan Gurney's win in Spa 1967 or Michele Albereto's win in Las Vegas in 1982, seem to pale by comparison in the surprise stakes. Perhaps if the 1997 Hungarian Grand Prix had been a lap shorter and Damon Hill had won in his Arrows, or if John Love hadn't needed a late fuel stop and thus won the South African race in 1967, those would have surpassed it. But they didn't.

Indeed, even if you were to allow in those wins helped by the rain or other unusual circumstances, such as Sebastian Vettel's win at Monza in 2008, Vittorio Brambilla's in Austria in 1975 or Jochen Mass's at Montjuic the same year, they cannot be said to be unequivocally bigger surprises. In other words, Pastor Maldonado's win in Spain will be one that goes down in history.

Sunday 13 May 2012

Spanish GP Race Report: Williams right back where they belong

F1 isn't a sport which lends itself ordinarily to mutual appreciation. But, every once in a long while, we get a result that just about everyone is happy with. And today was one of those rare days, as Pastor Maldonado took an unlikely and immaculate win. And not only was this remarkable in itself, in so doing he took win number 114 for Williams Grand Prix Engineering; getting on for eight years since win 113.

Pastor Maldonado and Williams claimed
a surprise, but magnificent, win
Credit: Morio / CC
The wave of goodwill around the F1 family after Maldonado crossed the line in first place was palpable today. Many, including this author, feared that the next win for Williams would never come. The Brazilian Grand Prix in October 2004 was a long time ago, and despite the occasional ray of hope the decline since then for them seemed pretty much constant. There was a common association with the likes of BRM and Tyrrell, former dominant teams who experienced a long, lingering downward path at the end of their existences. Turns out we were were worrying over nothing. Williams returned right back to where they belong today; even after the long wait there seemed something fitting about the team being atop the podium.

Saturday 12 May 2012

Barcelona Qualifying: Boring no more

Whisper it, but Barcelona may be losing its reputation. In the last place we'd expect to see it, we got a close and exciting qualifying session today, which produced a shuffled order for tomorrow's starting grid.

Had you at any point of the last 15 years or so asked an F1 fan what they associated with race weekends at the Barcelona circuit, most likely 'predictable', 'processional', possibly even 'boring' would likely have come up before long. It is a track used extensively for testing, and one that an ill-handling car can't be hustled around with any great utility. Surprise results and race orders therefore tended to be at an absolute premium. Usually a Barcelona starting grid would represent a case study of the cars evenly spaced and in the rank order of their aero efficiency.

Lewis Hamilton was quickest all day long,
and took a fine pole
Credit: Morio / CC
If that's still the case then we're in for a real treat in F1 for the rest of this year. Barcelona qualifying today was tight, diverting and ever-changing right to the last, and at the end of it all plenty of drivers are facing lining up for tomorrow's race in an unaccustomed grid slot.

Not even the phoney 'shadow boxing' of the early part of the final qualifying session could spoil things. It all kicked off in the final moments: Fernando Alonso first off delighted the home crowd by sticking himself at the top of the timing screens, and he was then usurped moments later by Pastor Maldonado in his Williams of all people. But then Lewis Hamilton, who'd looked by a stride the quickest thing out there all through the qualifying hour, reminded both of reality by claiming pole with a time more than half a second clear of anyone else's best.

Friday 11 May 2012

Barcelona Preview: That nagging sense of familiarity

Do you ever get that nagging sense of familiarity? No doubt F1 drivers heading into a Barcelona race weekend do.

Have I seen you somewhere before?
Credit: Jose Ma Izquierdo Galiot / CC
The popularity of the Montmelo facility as a test venue means that the pilots probably see the track in their sleep. And other familiar aspects of today's Barcelona running, familiar that is for 2012, is that the competitive order looks tight and management of tyres, perhaps more so than ever, will be critical for who comes out on top on Sunday.

Another time-honoured characteristic of the Barcelona track is that it is traditionally where we get some clarity over who's hot and who's not for the season. It has tended to mark the start of the European rounds, and there are usually new car updates aplenty as teams try to incorporate what they have garnered from the opening 'phoney war' fly-away rounds. And the races follow thick and fast from here, meaning that if you haven't got it right by now your season can run away from you very quickly.

And given the track has a number of long medium-speed corners it tends to show how cars are working warts and all - it's not a track amenable to hustling a poor-handling machine around.

A lot of this holds for this Barcelona meeting. But, such are the way of things in 2012's F1, clarity over what will be the year's usual run of things may yet be elusive this weekend. The competitive order remains close, and preponderance in qualifying and preponderance in the race may not necessarily be the same thing.

Sunday 6 May 2012

Retro F1: Gilles Villeneuve tribute - the 1981 Monaco Grand Prix

Hey y’all. The latest Retro F1 took place today. And given that this week marks the 30th anniversary of the passing of the legend that is Gilles Villeneuve, I decided this one should double as a tribute to the great man.

We therefore watched the 1981 Monaco Grand Prix, one of Villeneuve’s best ever drives, using the YouTube link below. The only drawback was that the commentary is in German, but we managed to work around that.

Retro F1 is when we watch a classic F1 race in full online, and chat about it on Twitter as we go, using the #RetroF1 hashtag. All are welcome!

Highlights of the Twitter chat are below.

Welcome all to the latest Retro F1, which is a Gilles Villeneuve tribute special, watching the 1981 Monaco GP. Here’s the link to the Monaco GP '81 race footage, I’m clicking play now :)

@CamillaKristel Should be interesting.
@kanemelegatti Ready guys?
@mario_eb Fuel in for Retro F1 :)
Hi Mario. Glad you could join us. Should be a good one :)
@mario_eb Hi Graham. Surely it'll be fun. Although my server's a little slow now I'll be following Retro F1 maybe I'll need my KERS ;)
Or your DRS.

@mario_eb Haha :D Ok, let me activate it :D

Saturday 5 May 2012

Lots of winners and very few losers: Thoughts on F1 in 2012

You've never had it so good. It's a line, in Britain anyway, most commonly associated with former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan after he said something to that effect in 1957. But it's tempting to think similar about F1 in 2012.

A lot was good about F1 in 2011: the 'overtaking problem', wherein races for the previous decade and a half or more offered very little of it, was cracked and then some, thanks to a combination of DRS and degrading Pirelli tyres. Races were definitely races again: they were invariably diverting and close, displaying much wheel-to-wheel action. Overtaking moves per race dwarfed the previous high tide water mark since records began in the early 1980s.

But a relative drawback, in the entertainment stakes anyway, was that the same guy seemed to win every time. Sebastian Vettel claimed 11 wins from 19 rounds in 2011, including six from the first eight.

F1 racing has been close in 2012
Credit: Morio / CC
But in 2012 you can scratch Vettel, or anyone else for that matter, winning every week. The entertaining races remain (and overtakes per race is even higher than last year), and we've had four different winners in the first four races, for the first time since 2003. And for the first time since 1983 the winners have come from four different teams.

Indeed, things could have been even further away from the predicted than that. Sergio Perez's Sauber could, possibly should, have won the Malaysian round and thus given us possibly the most unlikely victor in F1 history, and Kimi Raikkonen had a similar near miss in Bahrain in his Lotus. And further winners outside the four who have won already can be expected this year. Neither Lewis Hamilton nor Mark Webber have entered the winner's circle yet, and neither has either Lotus pilot, and all of them look like they've got wins in them in 2012.

Thursday 3 May 2012

The next Retro F1: 1981 Monaco Grand Prix, this Sunday at 1500 GMT - a Gilles Villeneuve special

It's been a while since the last Retro F1, and the next is happening this weekend. It'll take place this Sunday, at 1500 (3pm) GMT.

And given that Tuesday next week marks the 30th anniversary of the untimely passing of Gilles Villeneuve, I've decided to make this Retro F1 a tribute to the great Canadian. We'll therefore be watching the 1981 Monaco Grand Prix, one of Gilles Villeneuve's best ever drives.

Gilles Villeneuve's Ferrari 126CK
Credit: Etienne (Li) / CC
Retro F1 is where we watch a classic F1 race in full on YouTube, and everyone can post updates and chat about it on Twitter as live. And this race will be a very good watch. The only drawback is that the only link I can find has German commentary - but I'm sure we'll be able to work around that!